Making Learning Visible to Increase Student Engagement

I gave a presentation on “Making Learning Visible to Increase Student Engagement” at the NJEDge Faculty Showcase this year.  I was partly inspired by the educational research from the Project Zero group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I talked about using a public forum in both undergraduate and graduate online and face-to-face classes (at NJIT and at Montclair State University) and having students publicly reflect on their learning experiences.

Requiring students to document their work in a class forum immediately changes student ownership of their work. This type of documentation makes learning visible, rather than the private 1:1 relationship that assessment and evaluation often has between a student and instructor.  I explained the documentation and process reflection methodology and showed student examples. This practice borrows on earlier use of and the pedagogy of portfolios.

The Making Learning Visible (MLV) Project was based on collaborative research between Project Zero researchers and educators from the Municipal Preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. MLV investigated how best to understand, document, and support individual and group learning for children and adults. I read about it in Making Thinking Visible and Visible Learners. The five key principles are that learning is purposeful, social, emotional, empowering, and representational.

In particular, the aspect of learning and teaching in MLV that I identify most strongly with is the role of observation and documentation in deepening and extending learning.

Documentation involves one or more specific questions that guide the process, often with an epistemological focus (questions on learning).

Documentation also involves collectively analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating individual and group observations. Serendipitously, the keynote speaker at the Showcase was Etienne Wenger-Trayner who is a leader in the field of social learning theory, and coined the term “communities of practice,” and their application to organizations.

This process is strengthened by multiple perspectives and so it is necessary to make the learning visible. It becomes public when it is shared with other learners, parents, teachers or the public.

Prompting reflective thinking during learning helps learners develop strategies to apply new knowledge to the complex situations in their day-to-day activities. Reflective thinking helps learners attach new knowledge to prior understanding, and also understand their own thinking and learning strategies.

I find that this practice is also very beneficial to me as an instructor in grading student work as it reveals the hidden process that cannot be seen in only grading a final product.

Ultimately, I have found that this is another way to promote student engagement. Teachers in K-12 have known intuitively that displaying student work lets students know that their work is valued and that the classroom space is shared.